I really believe that traveling abroad, however it’s done, is better than not traveling at all with the exception of all inclusive resorts. While that kind of trip is great for relaxing, it doesn’t challenge a person and, therefore, doesn’t help them develop, learn or grow the way real travel can. All this said, I still find myself fighting a very powerful urge to slap some of my fellow backpackers for wasting their opportunity to really get the most out of their trip by making what I consider to be “rookie mistakes.” But if I feel I know more about the “right way” to travel, it’s only because I’ve made many of the same mistakes in my early years of backpacking. While all the things that follow might be things that just have to be learned from experience, I thought I’d give it a shot and share a few tricks to the trade I’ve picked up over the years. So here we go…
Leave Your Expectations at the Door
This is maybe the hardest, but best way to improve any trip you go on. Try not to imagine how every minute of everyday is going to go. There’s no way you can know that, and regardless of what anyone else has told you about a place, good or bad, that was their experience, not yours. Your trip will be your trip. It’s unpredictable, unimaginable, unrepeatable and it will be unforgettable and uniquely yours. Simply go where you decide to go and let the only expectation you bring with you be that you really have no clue what you’re in for and take it from there.
Get Away From Your Countrymen for Your Own Good and the Good of Your Country’s Image
In traveling around on this most recent trip, three nationalities have consistently taken turns being viewed as the most obnoxious tourists: Brits in SE Asia, Israelis in India, and Aussies in Europe. While on one hand each country had kind of earned it, on the other there was a very simple explanation for it: familiarity breeds contempt. And any time a group of travelers groups up too much, their ass starts showing. They get (or seem to get) louder than everyone else. They become (or seem to become) ruder than everyone else. And they exclude (or seem to exclude) everyone else. Regardless of the reality, this impression is an undeniable one and the simple fact of the matter is that any country that becomes hugely disproportionate in one location will end up looking like the biggest asses. I once did a long stay in a hostel and watched as the most obnoxious group went from French to Dutch to Chinese as each nationality showed up and mercifully left in very large groups. Besides all this, isn’t a major reason for traveling abroad to meet people from abroad?
Choose Quality Over Quantity No, I’m not talking about the gifts you buy for people back home. I’m talking about how you spend your time. Travel slow. Forget a country-count, and fight the urge to imagine what your travel map will look like if you can stick just a few more pins in it. There is no point in doing ten cities in ten days while in Europe, or five countries in three weeks while in SE Asia. Spending a day on a cafe street and letting the city walk by you is a memory and feeling you’ll come to value ten times more than the day you spent running around a city like a chicken with its head cut off trying to see all the big attractions.
Don’t Over Plan
Allow for a lot of spontaneity. If you meet someone you enjoy, have the flexibility to join them to their next destination. If you hear about a place you didn’t know existed but sounds cool, go there. If you find a place you really, really like, appreciate it and stay for a while. The more you travel the more you realize just how few and far between the really great places are. So when you find one, give yourself the opportunity to enjoy it by not having already booked your next three moves.
Don’t Let Getting Laid Be the Focus of Your Trip
Guys, I know, I get it. Believe me, I get it. You meet lots of amazing women from all over the world who are clearly cooler than your average bear when you travel. But there is so much more to traveling than getting some. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to hook up, it really has more to do with the first point I made about expectations. I’ve seen way too many guys get way too bummed when it turns out they aren’t having as good of luck as their three buddies who each said they hooked up ten times while they were in Spain for the summer. Well, let me tell you a secret about your buddies, two of them are probably lying and if they’re not, they had a lot of girls in common. (Trust me, I spent a month working at a backpackers bar in SE Asia. I know what I speak of.) Don’t let your definition of “fun” or “a good trip” be dependent on things that are out of your control like someone else’s willingness to sleep with you.
As for the ladies, y’all pretty much have a blank check in this regard. Just know that just because a guy has an accent doesn’t mean he’s a gentlemen (unless it’s a Southern accent).
Know Your Budget
Lots of backpackers are on a tight budget, but there’s a difference between being frugal and viewing every purchase, no matter how small, as the one that might cause you have to end your trip and go home. Traveling this way isn’t fun and it’s especially not fun for the people traveling with you. Shorten your trip so you can relax the purse strings if you’re getting down to the point that you’re cutting back on how much water you buy as a way to save money.
Look for the Good in Every Situation This sounds cheesy, I know, but a lot of times travel doesn’t go according to plan, even if your expectations are in check. You showed up to a hostel hoping to socialize, but it turns out you’re the only one there. Screw it. Enjoy the fact you have the place to yourself, take the best bunk and walk around the dorm naked (if that’s your thing) because you know there will be a time when you’ll be in one with way too many people. You wanted to go sightseeing but it’s pissing rain? Great! Now you can have a guilt-free day laying in bed, streaming movies and catching up with people back home. It won’t work for every situation, but you’d be surprised just how often it does.
I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you or your life. But I will make a huge wager that the vast majority of your friendships and most of the good conversation you’ve ever had have started the with the word “Hello.” And since you can never predict who will make a good friend or who will give you a good conversation, just suck it up and say, “Hi.”
Don’t Forget Small Towns
Big cities often get all the attention, and sure, there are a few famous sights in a few small towns, but those towns invariable become touristy. However, small towns off the beaten track have consistently been some of the best places I have visited, hands down. The pace is slower, the people are nicer and the vibe more welcoming. Times all this by ten if it’s a small college town. Well, in a college town, the pace might pick up a lot at night.
Don’t Mentally Check Out Just Because Your Trip is Coming to an End
Admittedly, this is the one I still struggle with the most. It’s hard to get towards the end of a trip and keep finding the energy to invest in meeting new people. And it sucks to sit and listen to people planning their next move while you know yours is to the nearest airport to go home. However, as my most recent trip showed me, you cannot time or predict when an important friendship or conversation will occur. And if I had been checked out and hadn’t said, “Hi,” one of the most important conversations of my life wouldn’t have happened.